The COVID-19 pandemic forced the shutdown of various sectors worldwide. This reduced atmospheric carbon dioxide and improved air quality. Recently, a new study showed estimates of new annual emissions, which might pave the way for a less polluted future.
The new estimates of annual carbon emissions and positive points from COVID-19 were examined by an international team of scientists. Their findings revealed that the temporary closure of sectors across the globe reduced daily emissions of carbon dioxide. The daily reduction was 17% as of early April 2020, compared to the average emission levels back in 2019. They published the results in the journal Nature Climate Change.
Global Temperature and Carbon Dioxide Emissions
Greenhouse gases or GHGs are gases that contribute to the greenhouse effect on Earth by absorbing infrared radiation. The effect prevents heat from escaping from the planet and raises the overall global temperatures. The enormous quantity of these gases can make the air toxic to living organisms, while the increase in global temperatures can cripple the growth of lifeforms. As such, it is important to reduce the volume of GHGs in the atmosphere to avoid adverse outcomes.
According to Our World in Data, an online source of research data, the average global land-sea temperature anomaly was 0.59 degrees Celsius. The upper temperature anomaly was 0.63 degrees Celsius while the lower temperature anomaly was 0.56 degrees Celsius. In 1998, the average temperature anomaly was 0.54 degrees Celsius, while the upper and lower temperature anomalies were 0.58 and 0.5 degrees Celsius, respectively. In just 20 years, all three metrics increased due to contributing factors.
One of the contributing factors has been carbon dioxide gas. In 2018, the estimated average global atmospheric concentration of the gas was 408.52 parts per million (ppm). In 1998, the estimated average atmospheric level of the gas was 366.70 ppm, significantly lower 20 years ago. The demand for energy and fuel heavily added to atmospheric carbon. If no action is taken, the future would be warmer and detrimental for people who cannot afford air-conditioning systems.
SARS-CoV-2 Assisted Mother Nature in Some Ways
When SARS-CoV-2, the virus of COVID-19, successfully jumped to humans, the pathogen easily navigated through communities and triggered outbreaks. When COVID-19 was declared a pandemic, the majority of commercial and industrial sectors were suspended to slow down the spread of the disease. From a global health threat, COVID-19 easily turned into an economic nightmare for everyone, businesspeople and workers alike.
However, for Mother Nature, the virus has been a helper in lowering toxic gases in the air. For several decades, nature has been fighting the pollution caused by people. Even though it has means to do so, it lacks the necessary time to offset the damage done by human activities. In this pandemic, nature is given more time to repair many of its aspects since most sectors are unable to operate. This has resulted in a substantial decline in energy demand, which shifted from industrial areas to residential areas.
In a recent study by the Global Carbon Project, scientists determined where the energy for demand declined and which population groups would benefit from lower annual emissions. Even in a short time, the decline in emissions would be significant in the future. Within several months, the air became cleaner and the sky became clearer, which showed that certain adjustments do not have to be forced to help the environment. Just changing one's behavior could lead humanity to a healthier future.
"The drop in global emissions we estimate this year will surprise some people in being 'only' 4 to 7 percent because shelter-in-place rules are temporary and staggered across different countries. But it will still be the biggest emissions drop since World War II, though for undesirable and unsustainable reasons. More surprisingly, U.S. emissions declined one third for part of April, a shocking drop driven by reduced mobility, manufacturing, and electricity demand," said Rob Jackson, an author of the study and professor of Earth system science at Stanford University, a private research university in the US.
The team compiled data and policies regarding the economic and environmental impact of the pandemic. They compared relevant details to what happened in the past. Their comparison unveiled that financial crises were mostly short-lived and countries would bounce back. When financial crises occurred, carbon emissions were found lower. For instance, the 2008 recession reduced emissions by 1.5% worldwide in a year. The next year, the emissions soared by 5% as the fossil fuel industry roared.
However, after that recession, a stimulus fund of nearly $50 billion was released to develop clean energy. Even though the benefits from that investment were not yet fully experienced, clean energy sustained the livelihood of 3 million Americans and continued to provide electricity to the grid. The same funding could be done as well after this pandemic: invest in clean energy and employ people who were displaced during the crisis. This could reduce the dependence on fossil fuels, which would lower emissions at the same time.
When it comes to everyone's daily lives, the pandemic might change the behavior of people and the viewpoint of governments. Since no vaccine has been developed yet, resumption of workplaces must follow the rules of the new normal. One of these would be the modifications in the transport sector, wherein public transit must maintain social distancing. It would mean cutting half of the original capacity of buses and trains. The 50% reduction in the public transit capacity would force some people to use bikes.
If more bikes were used by workers, it would cut down the emissions generated by the transportation sector. This could keep social distancing and improve air quality for everyone. For some, they might not frequently travel if their work from home arrangement has been approved. Fewer commuters could lower air pollution.
And finally, scientists pinpointed that the overall improvement in air quality could benefit vulnerable population groups. The virus of COVID-19 primarily attacks the lungs and people in air-polluted cities would be more susceptible to it. If sources of manmade air pollution shrink, air quality would improve and make the lungs stronger against the pathogen. This could be a critical advantage in case the virus does not disappear and becomes a seasonal invader of human communities.
In spite of the economic fallout and thousands of deaths due to COVID-19, there are some good things about its emergence. Many people around the world have noticed that the air they breathe is now cleaner and many have observed how blue the sky is. Hopefully, this disease is enough to remind people to take care of the planet.